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Sunday, September 23, 2018

Mindful Cell Phone Use, for Students and Teachers

The following is a guest post by Ira Rabois, author of Compassionate Critical Thinking.

How difficult is it nowadays to engage students in a deep discussion? Or if you’re a parent, how difficult is it to engage the whole family in a talk?

There has been much debate about the role cell phones and other digital media has played in making face-to-face in-school discussions more difficult in the last few years.

A colleague recently told me about the problems with phone use at her school. Some students even use their phones to order food to be delivered to the classroom!

When I asked why the teachers put up with it, she said they felt like they couldn’t do anything. Constant cell phone use is too engrained in the school (and national) culture. Kids do everything on their phones, and parents add to the problem by wanting 24/7 access to their children.

I was as frightened by this situation as my colleague was. How can anyone learn well, and engage with others in meaningful discussions, when their attention is constantly tuned to the expectation of a text?

Whether you teach at a middle school, high school, or university, chances are your students spend far too much time on their phones. Many teachers try to develop creative ways to incorporate student’s media use and cell phone habit in classroom exercises. For example, they may have students use their devices to research material during a discussion. Or they might have students respond to each other digitally instead of face-to-face.

Digital media give a gift of ready information. This can be useful, but we always have to ask what our students learn from the techniques.

Are such practices helping you teach or model how to have empathic, caring relationships, both online and in person? Or are they contributing to the unease with face-to-face conversations that young people might feel?

Questions and Activities for Students

There are many children now who don’t feel comfortable arranging face-time together with their peers. Their days are arranged for them, not by them. This, combined with frequent use of digital media, can lead to the feelings of isolation that many teachers have noticed. Online friends cannot replace physical ones.

As much as possible, be an ally of your students in learning about how to use technology. Ask what they like and don’t like in general about cell phones. Talk about media holidays, days or segments of a class where all devices must be put away. Make agreements with students that you, too, will follow.

To effectively examine with students the role of digital devices in the classroom, start at the beginning of the school year by asking sincere questions about how to learn together. You can ask these questions as part of a discussion, or have them write and share their answers, either with the whole class or in small groups.

What does community mean to you? How do you want to be treated here? 

For teenagers especially, you might ask:
Do you ever find yourself yearning for a deeper life, or wanting something but you don’t know what it is? 

Practicing Mindfulness

Ask students if they are interested in learning how to think more clearly and feel more powerful. If they say yes, ask if they have regularly practiced mindfulness.

Can you feel power over your own life if you don’t understand your own mind? 
One of the best ways to develop clarity of thinking as well as self-understanding is through mindfulness and compassion practices. 
Mindfulness is both a state of mind and a practice that develops moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, sensations and relationships. It allows you to notice the early stages of anxiety or habitual behavior so you can interrupt either.

After introducing the concept of mindfulness, assign and discuss research on its benefits. Then students will likely ask you to let them practice.

Do you only want to read about it, or do you want to experience it?
If you want to practice, do you prefer a few minutes to start the day, or a longer session once or twice a week?

Self-Reflective Questions For Teachers

Adults can be as addicted to their devices as children. Ask yourself: 

  • How much time do I spend on my phone, computer, and social media? 
  • Who do I prioritize: the person standing before me, or the one on the phone? 
  • How are our staff meetings? What percentage of the staff spends meetings with their attention on their phones or computers instead of on the people in the room with them?
When I first started teaching, I looked forward to staff meetings. It was often the only time I could talk with my peers to share teaching strategies and feelings of joy or frustration. Are your staff meetings a comfortable place to be, where teachers listen patiently, empathically, and diligently to each other? 

Here are a couple of practices you can try yourself and then introduce to your students.

Practice 1: Mindful Social Media Use

When you feel an impulse to turn to any social media platform, take 2 calming breaths and then ask yourself: 

'Why do I want to do this now? Is it simply habit?' 
This way you create a gap between impulse and response. You decrease automatic behavior and increase insight and your ability to exercise choice. 

Practice 2: Empathy and Letting Go 

One of the most effective ways to counter the possible problems posed by digital media is to model and teach compassion, empathy and kindness.

If you’re on a social media platform and you notice yourself getting angry or feeling hurt: 
1) Close your eyes, take a few breaths, and imagine the person who triggered your feelings. What exactly was said that set you off? 
2) Go back to the message and think about what the person meant. What might he or she have been feeling when she said it? What might she have been thinking? Why might she have said this? 
3) Then shift your focus. If you know this person outside of social media, is what you imagine this person meant by her text or tweet consistent with what you experienced with this person in the past? What might have led her to write what she did? If she was angry, imagine the pain she might have been feeling. In your imagination, wish for her a sense of calm or peace, an easing of her pain. 
4) Then shift to your breath. Feel what you now feel as you breath in and out. Feel how your body expands as you inhale—and lets go, relaxes, settles down as you exhale. Maybe feel your shoulders expand, even raise up a little as you inhale. And as you exhale, notice your shoulders drop, let go, and relax. 
Just sit for a second with that sense of relaxation and letting go.


In our world today, we are all bombarded with messages to keep up with the latest technology. The ping of the cell phone is an affirmation that we are valued and important.

Especially for young people who grow up with digital media, being disconnected means being less valuable. They fear what they might miss (FOMO), even to the extent of keeping their phones with them at night. This can interfere with sleep and contribute to anxiety, depression and possibly narcissism

This serves the interests of big corporations whose primary interest is in turning children into malleable consumers; it does not serve the interests of educators and parents interested in their children becoming clear thinking adults.

We have the responsibility to help kids feel more in control and less controlled by their phones and other media. 

When students feel the class is a safe community, concerned with the issues that stir them, they will more readily engage in the class, even in discussions that require questioning of their own habits and beliefs, even going so far as to question their habitual use of their phones.

Photo by Jacob Ufkes on Unsplash

About the Author

Ira Rabois has many years of experience as a secondary school teacher, instructor in the traditional Japanese martial arts, and meditation practitioner.  While teaching for 27 years at the Lehman Alternative School in Ithaca, N. Y., he developed an innovative curriculum in English, Philosophy, History, Drama, Martial Arts, and Psychology, and refined a method of mindful questioning. He writes a blog on education and mindfulness. Mr. Rabois is the author of Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching


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